July 28, 2016

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Going Rogue: Developing Modern Spirits

Hello and welcome back to Going Rogue, where winning isn't the goal but it often happens anyway.

Today I want to turn all of our attention to a tribe that's getting some serious love these days - as a result of new cards printed in Eldritch Moon. It seems pretty obvious that there's a top-tier Standard deck in there somewhere, but I want to make the case today that Spirits has what it takes in Modern too.

In case there is any confusion over which cards I'm talking about, take a peek at these three beauties:

A couple counterspells-on-a-stick and a Wrath of God-beater that's already seeing play in Hatebears? Yeah... this is going to get interesting.

Making Key Decisions

First things first, let's make sure we have the identity of this tribe right: It's going to be a tempo deck. With high counts of all three of flying, flash, and hexproof, this is a nimble tribe that delays your opponent's gameplan while getting in for easy damage.

The risk of a blue-based tempo deck is usually having nothing to do about Supreme Verdict, and risking your early board getting wiped away. Spell Queller and Selfless Spirit have something to say about that.

With all of these characteristics in place, Spirits passes what I like to call the "Tribal Test", which is simply put the ability to answer the question "What makes this tribe unique?" Without an answer to that, every tribal pilot should desleeve their deck and just go build Merfolk instead.

All that being said, there are still a lot of considerations to ponder while building this deck. Even though it's obvious the core is in blue-white, there are many complementary pieces at our disposal, so let's examine some of our options:

Pros: Hands-down the best Spirit in Modern. Helps us go very wide, maximizing the impact of cards like Drogskol Captain, efficiently pumps Mausoleum Wanderer, and offers efficient defence versus Infect. If that's not enough, it offers graveyard value to beat opposing Liliana of the Veils and synergizes with Thought Scour, which leads us towards some other interesting options like Tasigur, the Golden Fang or even the on-tribe Bloodghast.

Cons: Sorceries in tempo decks are ugly, and unlike our other non-Flash spirits, this one can't be given Flash by Rattlechains, Aether Vial, or Collected Company, and the only other black cards I'm even remotely curious about are Nameless Inversion (7/1 Geist of Saint Traft Angel? Yes please.) and Soulshifters like Thief of Hope.

Pros: Provides card advantage that the tribe surprisingly lacks, exploits powerful surprise effects like Spell Queller, Selfless Spirit, and Drogskol Captain, and offers a powerful end-of-turn Geist of Saint Traft.

Cons: Green doesn't offer this tribe a whole lot else, and getting to four mana quickly and reliably also pushes us towards mana dorks, diluting our tribal bonuses. Its upside is also limited by the amount of flash effects we already have, enabled in part by Rattlechains, and possibly Aether Vial. Speaking of which...

Pros: Offers the same instant-speed trickery as Coco, but eases the mana base, rather than constraining it. As demonstrated in my recent Green-White Humans list, Vial also lets us exploit mana sink abilities, not that the tribe is known for them, but I wouldn't be embarrassed to run Green alongside it for Duskwatch Recruiter.

Cons: Notoriously bad draw after turn one, somewhat outclassed by Cavern of Souls (especially in terms of flavour), eats into our "gas count" in the deck, has its upside limited by existing Flash capabilities, and also pushes us in the direction of trying to be Merfolk. Speaking of segues...

Pros: Sweet with Vial, and even Coco, lets us double-up our favourite Spirit, and gives us some clever interaction against opposing bombs. Copying Wurmcoil Engine or Emrakul, the Aeons Torn with this feels pretty good.

Cons: Unlike Merfolk, our "Lord" count is low, so this doesn't help us snowball. Not a Spirit when not on the battlefield, so it's harder to Flash in, without which it can't copy Spell Queller. Also awkward that, if it's a Spirit, Flashing in Rattlechains or Drogskol Captain doesn't save it in response to removal, which is one of the key benefits to the tribe.

Pros: Great tempo interaction to stunt blocking capabilities, strong trick to flash in with Vial and mana up, and can virtually lock your opponent out of the game in combination with Spell Queller (using the flicker effect to trigger the LTB trigger ahead of the ETB trigger, effectively countering the spell permanently). Plus, two+colourless is a wonderful mana base.

Cons: Not a Spirit, flicker ability doesn't have many high-value targets, forces us to play Adarkar Wastes, and is yet another 3-drop.

Pros: Low cost to including, plays well with Vial and Eldrazi Displacer, lets our mana base double-up as hexproof firepower.

Cons: Sadly, activating it doesn't trigger Mausoleum Wanderer, and playability crumbles if we reach for a third colour.

Pros: Best interaction suite in the format, tempo staple, simultaneously fends off aggro decks while giving late-game reach when we run out of steam. Offers Lightning Helix as an always-valuable sideboard option.

Cons: Not a Spirit, and every card that makes Snapcaster better makes tribal effects worse.

Pros: When you look up tempo in the MTG dictionary, all you see is a photo of Pestermite. Common power-level bedamned, it fits.

Cons: Okay, the common power level matters. Pestermite markedly worse without threat of Splinter Twin, and once again, it's yet another 3-drop.

Pros: Limited all-star.

Cons: I'm really only mentioning this card here because I have the platform to discredit it. I've seen other brewers say it's an automatic four-of, and they're just wrong, wrong, wrong.

Pros: That being said, if a tapper is what you're after, a much more efficient one is available. A one-drop tapper is a great way to deal damage with your Mausoleum Wanderers, and enabling Delirium on this thing is no joke.

Cons: Same sentence, different meaning: Enabling Delirium on this thing is no joke.

And that's just getting started. Time will reveal the true best way forward, but today it's up to us to take a stab at the direction this deck is best suited to take.

Defining the Shell: UWc

After deliberating with the above options in mind, I think the answer key we want is no, no, yes, sideboard, yes, yes, no, no, good god no, and sadly no. That is, I think we want to play blue-white-colourless with Aether Vial, Eldrazi Displacer, Mutavault, and Phantasmal Image in the side (not as a lord-duplicator, but as interaction), and say no to the rest.

Black just looks a little too clunky, with insufficient graveyard synergy to let Lingering Souls truly pull its weight. I'll still mock it up and try it another time, but I think it's the quickest option to dismiss for now.

Green simply doesn't offer enough, as mana dorks inherently subtract from the card advantage offered by Collected Company, and if I have to choose between Duskwatch Recruiter and Eldrazi Displacer as a mana sink, the choice is relatively easy, knowing that tempo is our plan of attack.

Snapcaster-red is strong. I built it, tested it, and loved it, except that there was a limit to the number of Snapcasters I could play with an otherwise-indicated low spell count, and with Lightning Bolt competing with Mutavault, the extra reach actually wasn't significant enough. It is a valuable complement to the deck, and likely the right meta call in an aggressive environment, but as Modern currently stands as a slowed down, Nahiri-wins format, we can afford to part ways with this particular interaction.

So that brings us back to blue-white-colourless, which I guess means it's time for me to talk through how I want the games to go.

Turn One
Aether Vial is our optimal opener, forming the foundation of our game plan. Mausoleum Wanderer and Mutavault are also strong opening plays to offer early damage. With these three options, each of which is likely a four-of, our opening turn is reliable.

Turn Two
A Vial on one lets us threaten Mausoleum Wanderer against spell decks, which is definitely solid. Depending on the rest of our hand, our mana is likely best spent EOT on a Rattlechains (enabling flashing in Drogskol Captain or Geist of Saint Traft next turn), although it's early enough in the game that I'm satisfied simply developing our board at sorcery speed via Selfless Spirit, Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit, or Spirit of the Labyrinth, even if those cards are at their best when Vialed in at the appropriate moment.
I'd also promote the case for including Thalia, Guardian of Thraben as a pseudo-evasive virtual-complement to our anti-interaction plan, and if you're in game two, this is a great time to deploy a sideboard bullet like Rest in Peace or Kataki, War's Wage.

Turn Three
With a Vial on two and three mana up, the deck is just about up to full speed already, particularly if you have a Rattlechains in play. We will usually have at least one 2+ power flier on board, and any of our 3-drops can have a massive impact on our opponent's ability to stay in the game. The interactions between Rattlechains and Geist and Drogskol Captain, and between Thalia and Spell Queller, cannot be understated. Once any of these pieces is in place and you get to untap with some form of protection up, your odds of losing plummet.

At this point you'd be right to point out that we do a terrific job of uniquely fending off our opponent's intentions to interact with our gameplan. But what about the times when their beatdown plan is ahead of us? Racing won't always be an option
Every good white deck, from Zoo to Jeskai Control, is able to lean heavily on Path to Exile in a number which is often four. Let me boldly suggest that we don't want to be there, though, and here's why:

While only a temporary solution to a major threat, that is the definition of what we're after. Vapor Snag is better than Path in the first few turns where ramping your opponent could be dangerous, it contributes valuable pecks of damage, and it plays terrifically with our own threats, most notably acting as another means to abuse Spell Queller's ETB/LTB trigger wording.

Snag is also better than Path here because with such a high density of fliers, the number of commonly-played creatures that we need to worry about can be counted on one hand: Restoration Angel, Vendilion Clique, Narcomoeba, Wurmcoil Engine, and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. Meanwhile if the problem is opposing 1/1 Spirit tokens, Snag shines even brighter.

The Deck

If it's sounding strange, maybe it will make more sense when you see it together.

Let's jump right to the choices that are likely to raise some questions.

Spirit of the Labyrinth?? Yep. The upside to having no way to draw extra cards is the ability to play an efficient body that shuts down Serum Visions, synergizes with tribal benefits, and even plays good defense against Wild Nacatls.

Spirit en-Dal?? Geist of Saint Traft can't fly, but apparently he can hide. This interaction is extremely potent and worth the otherwise underpowered-inclusion.

Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit? Okay, a bit less impressive, but again she's an efficient way to boost our Mausoleum Wanderers and Thalias, and has some synergy alongside Eldrazi Displacer. The double-white isn't ideal if we can't Vial her in, but we need a critical mass of 2-drops to make the deck flow, and she works well.

Speaking of which, there is definitely a case for running Mana Leaks as a "two-drop" in the main, but with some playtesting I discovered that this deck really does want to apply as much pressure as early as possible, and we have enough creatures that double as countermagic when needed, so extra counter support is better left in the side.

The Sideboard

Speaking of sideboard, this one probably speaks for itself (for once). The deck's main struggles are cards that Spell Queller can't hit and hexproof doesn't help against (read: Ugin, the Spirit Dragon/Wurmcoil Engine), and opposing Spirit tokens. Countermagic, Aven Mindcensor, and Kataki, War's Wage help in the former, Engineered Explosives helps in the latter, and Phyrexian Revoker tackles both.

The rest of the sideboard is set up to offer answers to odd-ball strategies, as well as upgrade options for when cards like Selfless Spirit aren't valuable in the particular matchup.

Wrapping Up

Testing so far has the deck at 4-1 in Tier 2+ matchups, which is certainly respectable enough to think it might not just be luck. It routinely threatens lethal inside of six turns, with Mausoleum Wanderer overperforming like an absolute boss, and has a wealth of flexibility in adapting to face different decks. I doubt we're even close to the optimal configuration, and yet the archetype is showing an enormous amount of progress.

Whether you choose to build it or not is up to you, but I don't think you're going to have a choice when it comes to learning how to play against it.

That's all we've got for this week. I hope you enjoyed this peek into a budding new contender. As always, until next time, have fun, and may the force be with brew.